Coming off a 2016 campaign in which it beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and played in the Rose Bowl against Southern California, Penn State will enter the 2017 season as a legitimate league title contender and a potential College Football Playoff participant.
There seems to be a growing consensus that the Nittany Lions have the potential to be favored in 11 of their 12 regular-season games this season. There are those who believe the Big Ten’s East Division champion will be determined when Penn State travels to Columbus on Oct. 28 to face Ohio State. It could be the only game on the schedule that the Nittany Lions won’t be favored to win.
In most of the early Top 25 polls, the Lions are ranked among the top seven teams in the country. Sports Illustrated has Penn State third behind Alabama and Southern Cal, with a number of other publications ranking the Lions seventh or eighth. In a composite poll that includes most of those early Top 25 lists, PSU is ranked sixth.
There are a host of reasons why the Nittany Lions are so highly regarded. They return 45 lettermen from last year’s squad: 18 on offense, 24 on defense and three on special teams. They return nine starters on offense, six on defense and three on special teams. Both Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley are considered legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates. Barkley shared Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors last year, while McSorley set Penn State single-season records for passing yards (3,614) and total yardage (3,979). In addition, Mike Gesicki may well be the top returning tight end in the Big Ten and one of the top five tight ends in the country. He’s coming off a year in which he set single-season school records for most receptions (48) and receiving yards (679) by a tight end.
On special teams, place-kicker Tyler Davis was a first-team All-Big Ten selection after converting 22 of 24 field goal attempts and 62 of 62 extra points. Punter Blake Gillikin was named to four Big Ten All-Freshman teams after averaging 42.8 yards per punt.
I could probably go on for a while with the factual reasons why I believe Penn State has the ability to repeat as Big Ten champion and reach the four-team College Football Playoff. But as we all know, potential doesn’t always translate into performance. If you think that another championship is a foregone conclusion, you may be in for a rude awakening.
With both Ohio State and Michigan finishing this past season ranked among the top 10 teams in the country, a claim can be made that the Big Ten’s East Division is right up there with the Southeastern Conference’s West Division as the nation’s toughest. As with Penn State, early polls have both the Buckeyes and Wolverines ranked in their respective top 10s.
So, even with a wealth of starters returning in all three phases of the game, to reach its goal of playing in the College Football Playoff, Penn State’s performance this fall will have to be even better than it was in 2016.
Two key players on offense who have to be replaced are third-team All-Big Ten wide receiver Chris Godwin and honorable mention All-Big Ten center Brian Gaia.
Anyone who tells you Godwin will be easy to replace doesn’t know what they’re talking about. In his three seasons at Penn State, he had 153 receptions for 2,404 yards. He was McSorley’s go-to receiver this past year with 59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Gaia, meanwhile, was a leader on the offensive line, performing effectively at center despite having spent most of his career at guard before switching positions during the 2016 off-season.
On defense, Penn State’s losses include both starting ends, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, outside linebacker Brandon Bell and strong safety Malik Golden. Sickels led the Lions with 12.5 tackles for loss and six sacks in what would turn out to be his final season. Schwan was second with 8.5 tackles for loss and tied Sickels for the team lead with six sacks. Bell, despite playing in only 10 games because of a series of injuries, still finished the season as Penn State’s second-leading tackler with 88 stops. Golden had a very effective senior season, finishing as the Lions’ fourth-leading tackler with 75 stops. PSU may also have to replace John Reid for some or all of the upcoming season after the junior cornerback suffered a leg injury in spring practice.
If Penn State hopes to put itself in position to repeat as Big Ten champion, a number of returning players need to step forward by the end of spring practice and show that they are prepared to match or exceed the performances of the six players listed above. Nothing less will suffice in a division as rugged as the Big Ten East.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the players who could end up filling the team’s biggest needs:
CENTER During winter workouts, there was speculation that redshirt freshman Michal Menet would be given the first shot at winning the starting job at center, with Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates at guard, where they combined to make 19 starts last season. But in a press conference shortly before the start of spring practice, coach James Franklin suggested that such speculation was off-base. Franklin said the coaches’ goal in the spring would be to get as many returning starters on the field as possible, even if it required a position change.
“The best way to do that is by moving a guy like Connor McGovern in there at center,” Franklin said. “Bates is a guy who could do that as well. But the way we’re looking at this right now, for the start of spring ball, is to have McGovern [and Zach] Simpson at center. They are both guys who have done it before in practice, and we feel like we can get out and practice well right from day one with those guys. And then also we’ve got Menet in there rotating and [January enrollee Mike] Miranda being able to rotate as well.
“So those guys will be playing guard and center, but what we didn’t want is to have some guys at center the first couple of days of practice who hadn’t done it in practice before, and now our practice has become sloppy and messy.”
Franklin also made it plain in March that McGovern won’t necessarily have to be the starter at center when the season begins against Akron on Sept. 2. Even if McGovern or Bates has to handle the position at the start of the year, that shouldn’t create any insurmountable difficulties, he said, because centers and guards are supposed to be able to play multiple positions.
“We have been forced in the past to be interchangeable just based on numbers, where now we’re doing it just to make sure that we can get the best five players on the field or have the best 10 in a two-deep situation,” Franklin said. “So that’s how we’re going to select spring ball, but I’m not sure we’ll necessarily finish that way. We’ll just kind of see.”
The position battle at center will help determine how the interior of Penn State’s offensive line looks on opening day. I believe McGovern and Menet have the best chance of starting at center, with the first-team guards being any combination of Bates, McGovern, Menet and Steven Gonzalez.
WIDE RECEIVER It will almost certainly take more than one player to replace Godwin at the X wide receiver position.
At the beginning of spring practice, senior Saeed Blacknall was considered the leading candidate for that role, having shown his potential by catching six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game. But Blacknall suffered some sort of leg injury in March, and as of this writing it appeared that he could be out of action for the rest of spring practice. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, and with sub-4.4-second 40-yard speed, Blacknall seems like he could give McSorley the kind of downfield target he will frequently be looking for this fall in Penn State’s big-play offense.
But Blacknall didn’t have Godwin’s job 100 percent locked up going into spring drills. Even before his injury, no one expected him to replace Godwin by himself – not with redshirt sophomores Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles also vying for significant playing time.
“Juwan and Irvin are quality athletes in their own right,” receivers coach Josh Gattis said in December prior to the Rose Bowl. “They have the size and speed to create large mismatch problems with opponents’ cornerbacks. All they need now is to develop some consistency with the way they catch the football and run their pass routes.”
DEFENSIVE END The three leading contenders to replace Sickels and Schwan are redshirt junior Torrence Brown and redshirt sophomores Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz. Brown, Miller and Buchholz were all part of Penn State’s five-man rotation at defensive end last year. Brown totaled 33 tackles, six tackles for loss and an assisted sack. Miller had 22 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, while Buchholz totaled 16 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
I believe Miller has put himself in position to start at strongside defensive end and possibly have a breakout season this coming fall. Brown is ticketed for the weakside spot.
Buchholz, however, is a wildcard here. He played behind Schwan last season, but on third-and-long situations, he moved inside to the three-technique defensive tackle spot.
The 6-6, 280-pound Buchholz said he expects to have a similar role this coming year. “They want me to keep my weight around the same as it was this past season, so I’m doing that pretty well,” he said. “If I do that, I think I’ll be able to have the same role, which was defensive end and defensive tackle, wherever they need me. I’m 280 [this spring]. They want me around 275, 280. It’s either big for a D-end or small for a D-tackle, so it’s in between. I play both, it doesn’t matter.”
Other players in the mix at defensive end are redshirt freshmen Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney. Toney could end up being a real surprise. When he arrived on campus last year, he was listed at 6-3, 195 pounds – too light to be effective as a defensive end in a conference as physical as the Big Ten. But he’s already up to 222 and has garnered praise from the coaching staff. Dwight Galt, Penn State’s strength and conditioning coach, called him “a freak athlete.”
“We’re still trying to get that weight on him. He looks more like a linebacker than a D-end,” Galt conceded. “But [he’s] incredibly explosive, very fast, very quick, very agile, has a 36-inch vertical. He’s going to be tough off the edge. He just has so many physical tools.”
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER Replacing Bell won’t be easy, but the Lions have options here, as junior Manny Bowen and sophomore Cam Brown both have high ceilings. Bowen was Penn State’s fifth-leading tackler last season with 68 stops, 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Brown, whose redshirt plans were abandoned when Bell was injured in the second game of last season against Pitt, has added 27 pounds during winter workouts and now stands 6-5, 225. The coaching staff is hoping he’s up to 230 by the time preseason practice begins.
Redshirt junior Koa Farmer, redshirt sophomore Jarvis Miller and January enrollee Brelin Faison-Walden provide the depth at outside linebacker, and Farmer may make a run at a starting spot after filling in for the suspended Bowen in the Rose Bowl.
STRONG SAFETY One other major position battle this spring is in the secondary, where redshirt sophomore Ayron Monroe and senior Troy Apke are the leading contenders to replace Golden.
Apke played in all 14 games last year, backing up Marcus Allen at free safety. Monroe played in 10 games and was one of the top performers on Penn State’s punt and kickoff coverage teams.
John Petrishen could also be a factor here, and don’t be surprised if January enrollee Lamont Wade gets an audition. Wade, who could also fit in at cornerback and nickel back, has been receiving rave reviews already.
Threre are two additional players I’d like to highlight as Penn State gets set to wrap up spring drills with the Blue-White Game. Those players are Farmer and redshirt sophomore tight end Nick Bowers.
While the Lions have an excellent starter returning at tight end in Gesicki, the spot is one of the team’s thinnest in terms of proven depth. Essentially, Gesicki is the only tight end with any real game experience. Bowers was expected to be Gesicki’s top backup last season, but he suffered a leg injury at the end of preseason practice that caused him to miss the entire 2016 season. He hasn’t played since his senior year of high school in 2014, but he may be Penn State’s best blocker at the position.
“He’s a guy we’ve been as excited about as anybody in terms of his ability to block, his ability to run, his ability to catch,” Franklin said. “Those guys are hard to find, 260-pound guys who can make plays in the pass game and block. And he’s productive in both areas.”
Finally, Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry will surely be looking for Farmer to make a push for the starting Sam OLB position. He’s now listed at 6-1, 230 pounds and runs a 4.4 40, and he came into his own during the second half of last season.
If all of the players mentioned here are able to come to the forefront during the off-season, Penn State will take a giant step forward in its quest to win back-to-back Big Ten titles and qualify for its first College Football Playoff appearance.
What else is in our April issue of Blue White Illustrated's magazine? Let's take a closer look at some of the feature stories, news and notes, here!
FOOTBALL - Get ready for the Blue White Game with our complete spring practice coverage. BWI editor Matt Herb kicks off the section with a look at the ways this year's Blue White Game can be another way to continue the momentum the program built through the course of the 2016 season. Features include Saeed Blacknall, Penn State's defensive ends and more!
PHIL'S CORNER - BWI publisher Phil Grosz identifies the players that could hold the key for the Nittany Lions if they aim to make another run at a Big Ten Championship. You won't want to miss his keen insight into the Lions' most important positions for the season ahead.
RECRUITING - As always, BWI recruiting analysts Ryan Snyder and Tim Owen have your Penn State football recruiting fix. In this issue, they look at the ways Penn State has expanded its recruiting base beyond the region, assess the fast start to Class of 2018 recruiting, feature an in-depth Q&A with committed prospect Ricky Slade, and have Up Close and Personal features on Sean Clifford, Yetur Gross-Matos, Robert Martin and D.J. Brown.
HOOPS - BWI men's basketball beat writer Nate Bauer checked in with Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers to gauge where the program stands heading into an offseason many consider extremely important to establishing an upward trajectory.
WRESTLING - Blue White Illustrated's Tim Owen has an in-depth look at how the Nittany Lions once again rose to the top with yet another team national championship at the NCAA Tournament.
And these are just a few of the many stories and features that come with every edition of Blue White Illustrated's magazine, including an inside look at the hockey program, Varsity Views notebook, Scorecard, The Last Word, and more! Be sure to grab yours by ordering a subscription below or picking one up at newsstands all over Pennsylvania!